This last week I had the chance to chat with 小米2020 (xiaomi) who is one of the organizers behind yizhe group (http://yyyyiiii.blogspot.com/). This group translates western journalism on China, so that it can be more accessible to common Chinese people. Sometimes because it covers a different perspective, but often because the news is considered to “sensitive” to be reported domestically.
Tom: How would you describe the purpose of Yizhe group?
小米2020: Yizhe is the Chinese word for “translator”. We are all individuals who can understand more than one language. And most of the Yizhe members are bilingual in English and Chinese, with Mandarin as our mother’s tongue. When you can do that, you cannot help noticing that there is a gap of information in terms of what you can access about China on world media and what you can read on Chinese media, not only due to the Great Firewall, but also due to the language barrier. And Chinese, in general, are keen to know others view about them. We are trying to fill that information gap by translating what we can see to those who cannot.
Tom: About how many readers does Yizhe group have, and who would be a typical reader?
小米2020: It’s hard to get an accurate statistics since we encourage reposting of our translations. Once a post is shared and reposted, it’s hard to trace the audience any more, especially for those being reposted for several times.
But the direct subscribers for our RSS and emails are over 20,000. They are our first readers and the spreading starts from this group.
Since We don’t collect personal information about our readers, I am sure what I know is typical or not. But there are at least three types of our readers from the exchange of ideas with them:
1) White-collar professionals or so-called middle-class. Their message usually end with a note saying “sent from my iPhone/iPad.” Both are not cheap but are viewed as trendy in China.
2) Students from college and high schools. They usually would tell you that they are studying and what they have learnt from us are different from the textbooks. So I know. Sometimes they would say they don’t agree with the foreigners saying, but still want to know the other side of the story.
3) The elders. They would like to use certain expressions in their messages. I guess they are retired and keen to find a way to express themselves, once they know how to surf online, they cannot stop it. It’s interesting to notice that there are quite some elders as the audience of foreign shortwave broadcasting in Mandarin like VOA.
Tom: Which article has been the most popular translation for Yizhe, and why do you think so many people were interested in it?
小米2020: The most popular one, with over 1 million hits (by estimate), is our translation of the interview with Premier Wen Jiaobao by Fareed Zakaria on Oct. 3rd, 2010. There are a couple of reasons for that particular piece spread so quickly. The interview was aired on Oct. 3rd, and we finished translation on Oct. 7th.,2010; and the whole period was China’s National Holiday. It is very possible that the censor machine, which involves a lot of human attention, was on holiday too. So the post was not deleted within Great Fire Wall. The interviewee was Premier Wen, some Chinese portal sites might have thought that it was safe, at least Tencent reshared our translation and put it on the top of their portal page. At that time, Wen’s outspoken call for rule of law and democracy was still fresh (compared to public response to his same speech now) and caught the attention of quite a few intellectuals who have always hoped that political change could be top-down, and the call of Wen was such a signal. They reshared the posts and helped it spread. We even got questions from Taiwanese media asking if we worked for Wen, and were deliberately sending out the translation on behalf of him. (Well, Chinese readers are too good to read between lines.)
This year, statistically speaking, the most popular translation is the profile of Hanhan by Evan Osnos from The New Yorker. I guess the article was long—over 10,000 words—so many reposts were cut off, and the readers had to come to our site to read the full translation. This explains the numbers. This article has got over 10,000 hits so far.
Tom: Does being involved with such a vocal group make you worry about your safety? Have you been invited to “drink tea” (euphemism for being questioned) with the police?
小米2020: We just started our podcast program and it just got landed and recommended by iTunes. We chose to make podcasts instead of video casts for the safety reason. Without showing our faces, we remain anonymous.
I personally haven’t been invited to “drink tea” yet. But some members of our translation volunteers were identified and had to drop off. This happened last February, after several posts about Jasmine Revolution appeared on our blog, which were also translated from western media. So, yes, there are reasons to worry about the safety issue though we are just a loosen group without much organization or particular political purpose.
Tom: How did you become involved with Yizhe group? Does your family support your choice to be so outspoken?
小米2020: Well, I was doing some translation work before Yizhe was set up on another translation site called Yeeyan. Yeeyan is still up and running now. But it was closed for some reasons in Nov. 2009. A couple of translators who got to know each other on Yeeyan, including me, asked for copies of our works but didn’t get any response from the site. They may have deleted all of them because they were under scrutiny at that time and they self-censored many articles which they thought were too sensitive to the government. We felt insulted and didn’t want to put our works there without knowing whether we can get access to them some day. So we decide to make copies of our translations. It doesn’t matter if others can read them. It has to be stable and trusted. So we start to post on blogger. That became Yizhe later on. Very soon, we found that many were asking to subscribe these articles, the easiest way for them to do so is via RSS. We have kept a full-text RSS feed since the very beginning.
No. My family is not supporting me to do this kind of work. They keep worrying about my safety. They don’t want me to be asked to “drink tea”, or my visas could be denied. Or their lives and work could be influenced by what I am doing. So I talked with them and promised that I will not be caught and won’t disclose my real name and identity.
Tom: Do you think yizhe has an effect on how Chinese nationals view their country and gov’t? Or do many ignore your posts as “foreign propaganda”?
小米2020: I tend not to think that one of millions of blogs or podcasts can make any significant difference for a country like China, which has a population of 1.3 billion and more than half of them are not online today. But for those who are following us, I think they become more open-minded, as they claimed.
For a generation who is forced to spend so much time on propaganda, it’s hard to brainwash them in any other way. They will know. And this is true for our members. Since the translators pick up what they are interested and no one can make assignments for others. They often only pick those articles which they believe are making some good points. I think this keeps our posts away from any kind of propaganda.
As I mentioned, our readers may not agree to what they read, they don’t think this is another kind of propaganda, sometimes, they may think those laowai, or foreigners aren’t familiar with China topics, though.
Tom: I get the feeling that many of my readers would like to know what they can do to support access to information in China? Does foreign involvement help or hurt efforts like Yizhe’s?
小米2020: We are a group for translation. I guess foreign involvement is inevitable and hasn’t stopped from the very beginning. I do have some favors to ask, in particular, though. For those sites that don’t have its own Chinese version, I wish they can get to know us and grant us the permissions to translate their publications. If it takes too much effort to review the translations, we can claim that our translations are not reviewed by the original publishers and we take full responsible for the accuracy of translations. For those who do have Chinese versions, we are happy to send our’s for them to review as long as it shows that Yizhe helps provide the Chinese version. Copyright is an issue that we want to address. And we are open to talk.
Tom: What hopes do you have for China in the next 10-15 years?
小米2020: Uhmm…. This is the most interesting question, I think. From my point of view, I can see clearly that China has been changing so fast, that the current system, especially the stagnant political system is like an outfit that doesn’t fit anymore; the society, on the other hand, is like a teenager who grows everyday. So something will happen. Either
the clothes will be discarded, or there are going to be some real tensions and fights. I don’t want the later happen, but it’s not up to me.
I am also preparing for the next couple of interviews for Yizhe vocal programs. One of them is about the Xinhai Revolution, which happened exactly a century ago in 1911. What happened to Qing dynasty was quite similar to what it looks like today. One can say it’s sad to see China hasn’t gone too far in 100 years; well, it’s also fair to say that it just takes that much time and efforts for a quarter of the total population on earth to figure out how to make it right. I think I will be able to see the beginning of the end of the great transformation of China, which will happen in the next 10-15 years. China will finish its search for the path to be a modern country and start to be a real one.
You can also follow her on twitter – @xiaomi2020